Equine obesity is a growing and serious problem in the UK horse population. Obesity and recent weight gain is associated with a range of health concerns including increased laminitis risk and poorer prognosis for recovery; worsening of other lameness issues and arthritis due to excess weight; increased pro-inflammatory mediators; respiratory compromise and restricted treatment options for joint medications, respiratory issues and allergies.
Before domestication horses lived and grazed on extensive areas and would take advantage of plentiful grass in the summer to deposit fat in order to get them through the leaner winter and be lean again by spring. However today, the majority of horses don’t lose much weight in the winter and grassland in the UK has changed massively from natural meadows to mostly ryegrass varieties that were designed to quickly fatten sheep and cattle. Unsurprisingly this sort of grass pasture is not ideal for the vast majority of horses and puts many of them at risk of excessive weight gain.
There are a few tools we can use to assess your horse’s weight or body condition and the first step to recognising that your horse may have a weight issue is understanding how to assess them.
The only way to gain a measure of your horse’s exact weight is to use a weighbridge, which is essentially a large set of scales that you can walk your horse onto and record their weight. We are very fortunate at our Poppleton Clinic to have a weighbridge available that our clients are able to access. Clients are welcome to book a FREE appointment to bring their horse into the clinic to weigh in or if your horse is at the clinic for another reason please just ask if you would like to weigh them at the same time. An accurate weight for your horse is also very useful when calculating how much feed or forage to give, especially when maintaining a strict diet.
Although a weigh-tape won’t be quite as accurate, it will provide an estimate to help with feeding and if used regularly it will help you to monitor weight gain and loss. Weight management can be a frustrating process sometimes and so keeping a record of regularly recorded weights can help you understand if you are making progress or highlight where things may not be quite going right. Most weigh-tapes are used around the horse’s girth and it is important that for each measurement they are used in the same position each time and around the same time of day.
Body Condition Scoring (BCS):
Although measuring the weight of your horse is extremely useful, body condition scoring helps us understand if that weight is appropriate for your individual horse. The most commonly used system in the UK scores the horse from 0 (emaciated) to 5 (obese) with half scores used. On this scale, depending on the individual, a score of 2.5-3.5 would be considered a healthy range for the vast majority of horses. As lots of horses deposit fat unevenly across their bodies it is often easiest to split your horse into three areas: 1) Neck and shoulders 2) Back and ribs 3) Pelvis. Particular areas to pay attention to include the neck (especially if they are developing a crest); behind the shoulder; over the ribs; along the withers and backbone; the bony points of the pelvis and how the rump looks from behind. We would recommend you score your horse at least monthly and keep a record so you can recognise any changes and react accordingly.
Alongside monitoring your horse’s weight, management typically involves a combination of reducing grazing and adjusting supplementary feeding, increasing exercise and utilising your horse’s metabolism. If you have any questions regarding weight management or would like to speak to one of our vets for further information or advice please do not hesitate to contact us.